Doctor of Leadership in Global Perspectives: Crafting Ministry in an Interconnected World

Fig Leaves Then. Performance Now.

Written by: on March 15, 2023

A few weeks ago, I attended a community luncheon that revolved around mental health awareness. The goal was to break stigmas around psychological and emotional health issues and provide more resources for churches in our area. During the event, some pastors and members in the community shared their experiences of rejection and shame for experiencing anxiety and depression as Christians. These individuals felt like they had no one to talk to and when they were finally desperate enough to reveal their struggles and show others “the backstage” portion of themselves, leaders and people within their congregations responded in ways that were either unhelpful or judgmental. Back to this portion in a bit.

Simon Walker’s book Leading Out of Who You Are hits several notes that challenge me as a person and leader while also stirring up some legitimate questions about vulnerability.[1] It challenges me to keep striving and growing to live and lead in a such a way that builds trust with those around me, especially my wife and kids who really have a backstage pass to my life. The theatre analogy used in this book by Erving Goffman is helpful to illustrate what we do when other people are watching and the duplicity it can create if we are not careful.

Ideally, it would be great if we lived in a world where we could rip the curtain that divides the front stage, the part everyone sees, from the back that is hidden from the world. Imagine living in a community  where people didn’t run or shutdown when they heard our uncensored doubts, fears, struggles, perspectives, views, desires, or insecurities. Where we could live naked and unashamed like our primeval ancestors did before they consumed the tree of the knowledge of good and evil and began making judgements of what and who is good or bad. I believe Walker’s book, along with the Genesis narrative, points to the reality that we are all yearning for authenticity and unconditional acceptance that is not based on performance but pure being.

Being loved because we exist is a concept that is beautiful in theory, but foreign to most of us in practice.

This must be why the kingdom of God makes us so uncomfortable and why we spend so much time and energy making fig leaves to cover our undesirable parts and work endlessly to earn approval. Jesus in Matthew 20 tells the parable where the person who worked for one hour gets paid the same as the others who had been working all day. What?! That’s not fair! That’s not how our world works! Jesus also has the audacity to say in Matthew 5 that we should love our enemies, not because they deserve it, but because of who we are, children of God. God shines on the just and the unjust, the righteous and the unrighteous because of God’s nature and character, not as a response to the recipient’s actions or performance. God loves because it is God’s nature. Period.

Simon reminded me of these passages when he was encouraging leaders to anchor their identity in a source that is secure, not one that wavers based on our performance or abilities. This is crucial for our identity. The secure identity we find in God, and are praying to develop in our own selves, is what I believe both Walker and Edwin Friedman, in Failure of Nerve, are getting at when it comes to leadership. [2] Our being. Who we are is largely shaped behind stage which AGAIN leads me to prayer and asking myself some questions of self-examination.

What faulty, shortsighted, or distorted belief systems, theologies, or worldviews, that I currently hold, need my attention right now? Who can best help me find my blind spots?[3]

Is there a disconnect between how I perceive I lead, act, and respond and what people are experiencing with me?

What are my genuine motives in this project, action, ministry, and NPO?

Is my life singing the same song as my words?

Back to my first paragraph about the pastors and congregation members who shared their feelings of shame and rejection when they finally mustered the nerve to be vulnerable and show others “backstage”. These scenarios further illustrate why people stay in “wardrobe” or “character”. Why we continually feel the need to keep sewing fig leaves to cover ourselves.  These are not universal responses in the church or Christian circles, but they happen more than they should and there are still labels connected to “church people” that are lingering like “judgmental”, “intolerant”, and “self-righteous”. Once again, I don’t think this is universally the case, but hearing these stories and many others in the same vein makes me pause and wonder, “What are we doing wrong?”, “What am I doing wrong?” What kind of environments and mentalities are we creating that make people feel so unsafe or hesitant to be vulnerable in Christian spaces?

There was a lot of discussion that day on who to share our mental struggles with to protect ourselves from rejection, rightly so, but I couldn’t help but think we need way more discussion in faith communities on how to respond when we share our true selves with one another. Would love to have thoughts on this in the comments of how to better respond when people let us “backstage”. I think we all want to see the labels attached to Christian communities grow towards “non-judgmental”, “safe”, “home”, “reliable”, “loving”, and “trustworthy”.  Seems like a simple idea, but would appreciate peoples perspectives or practices around this issue.



[1] Simon P. Walker, Leading Out Of Who You Are: Discovering the Secret of Undefended Leadership (Carlisle, UK: Piquant Editions Ltd., 2007).

[2] Friedman, Edwin H., Margaret M. Treadwell, and Edward W. Beal. A Failure of Nerve: Leadership in the Age of the Quick Fix. (10th anniversary revised edition. New York: Church Publishing, 2017).

 [3] Wedell-Wedellsborg, Thomas. What’s Your Problem? To Solve Your Toughest Problems, Change the Problems You Solve. (Boston: Harvard Business Review Press, 2020) 31.


About the Author

Adam Harris

I am currently the Associate Pastor at a church called Godwhy in Hendersonville, TN near Nashville. We love questions and love people even more. Our faith community embraces God and education wholeheartedly. I graduated from Oral Roberts University for undergrad and Vanderbilt for my masters. I teach historical critical Biblical studies at my church to help our community through their questions and ultimately deepen their faith. I love research, writing, learning, and teaching. I oversee our staff and leadership development. Before being at Godwhy I worked as a regional sales coach and director for Anytime Fitness. I've been married for over 13 years to my best friend and we have two amazing boys that keep us busy.

14 responses to “Fig Leaves Then. Performance Now.”

  1. Jennifer Vernam says:

    What great questions you are highlighting, Adam! I especially like: “What faulty, shortsighted, or distorted belief systems, theologies, or worldviews, that I currently hold, need my attention right now? Who can best help me find my blind spots?”

    This thread helps normalize that we are going to need to make adjustments. It is a given that we will have blindspots. I think we need to construct mechanisms that reinforce the vulnerability required to be able to answer them for ourselves so those that watching know that they, too can be vulnerable with their shortcomings. It seems like such transperancy has to start at the top.

    “Is my life singing the same song as my words?”

    Great post!

    • Adam Harris says:

      Thanks Jennifer, I appreciate the kind words! Transparency does start at the top. I think most of us wrestle with the repercussions of transparency in some settings, like the people at the luncheon. I guess certain negative repercussions (rejection, ridicule, judgement) are inevitable, but it is the price to pay to move the needle forward in this area. When one person, especially leaders, do it, it inspires others to as well. Thanks for the reply!

  2. Jenny Dooley says:

    Hi Adam, I appreciate your post and sharing your experience at the luncheon discussing mental health with Christian leaders. I am curious as to how that event came about and what the conversations sounded like. How safe did you perceive those who shared their experiences felt? What made it possible for them to share so honestly? I appreciate the connection you made between Walker and the Genesis narrative when you wrote, “…we are all yearning for authenticity and unconditional acceptance that is not based on performance but pure being.” I think shame is the biggest trouble maker. As leaders, I think we have to work at reducing our own shame first and that requires inviting safe people into our backstage. In answer to your question, listening with empathy, letting go of judgments, and acceptance of the person come to mind. This works best when the hurting person is ready and feels safe enough to talk and the listener isn’t trying to fix. Backstage is a tender place! It is a privilege and an honor to be invited there. It is by invitation only.

    • Adam Harris says:

      It was hosted by a non profit mental health organization in our area that is wanting to get their name and resources out there so they hosted a lunch for pastors. It was a great idea and opened up some good conversation at our table. The people presenting were very open about their experiences, one pastors daughter shared that she dealt with suicidal thoughts for years alone. It was emotional and powerful as well to hear what God eventually did in her life.

      You hit the nail on the head. Shame is the culprit. Brene Brown has a book out called “Atlas of the Heart”. She defines shame as “I am Bad” verses guilt as “I did something Bad”. Big difference in identity. Appreciate the distinction she makes.

      I agree, really listening is key, not fixing or giving advice, but non judgmental listening. When people bring us backstage, it should be treated as sacred ground. Thanks for the thoughts and response Jenny!

  3. mm John Fehlen says:

    You reminded me of a time a few years ago, perhaps five years now, when I was invited to share at a local pastors gathering. Normally we meet in a small room with 10-12 leaders, but this gathering was opened up further to 50-60 in attendance. When my time on the agenda came to share, I had a quick and clear sense that I was to NOT present what I had prepared, but rather, open my soul up and talk about some personal struggles and how the group of 10-12 pastors had been a source of strength for me. I was very vulnerable. And I was met with great appreciation from a small handful of them. I’m not sure what the other 50 or so thought, but oh well.

    It’s not the first time I have done something like this. As a matter of fact, about 7 years ago I took a bold step of standing in from of our congregation (all three services) and ripped by heart open for them to see where I was broken and where God was deeply at work in me.

    I recall these moments (and there are a handful of other times), in order to ask you a question based upon your post, but also because of times in which my vulnerability has seemingly backfired on me (ie: judgement, gossip, over-sharing, etc): Have you ever bore your soul publicly and if so, what was the response?

    • Adam Harris says:

      I have, and the church where I currently serve allows a much greater degree of honesty without judgement or negative repercussions. I say “greater degree”, because I don’t think any social setting can handle 100% of the truth all the time! There is a hilarious book by A.J. Jacobs on his social experiment of telling the honest truth ALL the time.

      I bore my heart on some things several times in my earlier years of ministry and felt the negative repercussions. After I shared some honest feelings, thoughts, doubts, and perspectives, I quickly learned to play the front stage act, then became miserable for it, left full time ministry, and now I am back, am much more honest and could not be happier serving. I believe that was part of my journey of growth. I still wrestle with the discernment and wisdom of who to share with, how much to share, and when to share, like most of us, but I see the tremendous value of vulnerability. Shame sure grows in the darkness.

      Appreciate the response and even more that you bore your soul to 50-60 people. I bet more than a handful respected and needed to hear what you had to share.

  4. Travis Vaughn says:

    Adam, you’ve opened up a box here where there is so much discussion, research, and processing needed. I think if people are honest, including pastors, ministry leaders…people in “helping/care” professions…it’s a tightrope to figure out how much to be vulnerable about struggles/loss/mental health (fill in the blank) and how much to hold back. I’m guessing a lot of people calculate how much to share and…not be fired, not be ostracized, not be avoided in future conversations, not be labeled “unhealthy”…the list could go on an on. I’m thinking people are making those calculations all the time. I’m thinking people do the mental math and often end up saying, “It’s just not worth it. I risk too much or don’t have a position of privilege to be that honest.” Who else (authors, subject matter experts, etc.) have you encountered who has spoken into this?

    • Adam Harris says:

      Thanks for the response Travis, “making calculations” is a great way to put that. I think we are always making calculations with who to be vulnerable with and what might happen if we do. It is such a human dilemma, and makes me appreciate the garden narrative so much each time I examine that story.

      Parker Palmer speaks on this to an extent in his book “Letting Your Life Speak”. He says we spend the fist half of our lives putting on masks for society and success, then spend the last half of our lives taking them off. We can get to a point where we have learned to play the part or play the game so well we have lost ourselves along the way. “Naked Spirituality” by Brian McLaren confronts this issue as well. Brene Brown also discusses it in her book “Atlas of the Heart”. All great reads, I’m sure we all have time for more books right!?! Thanks for the reply man!

  5. Scott Dickie says:

    Hey Adam….great post. I appreciate the questions you are asking yourselves and recognize the need to reflect on them myself. I wonder if you have heard anything from Father Gregory Boyle? A podcast called “Finding Mastery” interviews him and I find his vision of people so compelling! He has this radical vision that allows him to see the essential person beyond the really poor choices of their lives. If the church could see people like he sees people (he has the largest gang-rehabilitation ministry in your country)…we would be a long ways away from the current experience of so many people when they walk in the doors of a typical evangelical church. Let it be so, Lord.

    • Adam Harris says:

      Thanks Scott and appreciate the share, I looked up Father Boyle, what an inspiration. The speech I heard from him was about “the power of tenderness”. I’ll be listening to more of his life and philosophy for sure. It reminds me of a conversation I had with a staff member a while back about firearms, the military, law enforcement, etc. We need protection from aspects of our world, but it does nothing to change the human heart. What Father Boyle is doing with gang members is opening them up for deeper spiritual and emotional change. Love his approach and someone to emulate for sure. Thanks again for sharing, had never heard of him.

  6. Kally Elliott says:

    “What are my genuine motives in this project, action, ministry, and NPO?”

    My daughter likes to joke I am only doing this doctorate so that people will have to call me “The Reverend Doctor.” She’s not wrong. (Joking. Mostly.)

    “There was a lot of discussion that day on who to share our mental struggles with to protect ourselves from rejection, rightly so, but I couldn’t help but think we need way more discussion in faith communities on how to respond when we share our true selves with one another.”

    I totally get the concern around with WHOM to share difficult things, especially when it comes to mental illness. I have to be careful when sharing our family’s struggle with mental illness. It’s not that I am ashamed but more that some people don’t know what to do or how to act with information like that. I’ve come to believe that while I’m not afraid to share my story not everyone has earned the right to hear my story. I get to decide to hears it – I mean, for the most part.

    • Adam Harris says:

      Thanks for the reply Reverend Doctor Kally (Couple more years!) Travis and I were discussing something similar. We are always making calculations and counting the costs and benefits of what and who to share our lives with and to what degree. It just inspired me to have more discussions in faith communities around keeping the “backstage” areas sacred when others allow us back there.

  7. mm Jana Dluehosh says:

    I’m starting to think about Jesus and his disciples as I read your post Adam. Jesus had a true moment of humanity and vulnerability as he went into the garden to pray. I believe in that story he did not invite all of his followers with him, he invited a few. What if Vulnerability was experienced in layers? Having a few close friends with whom trust has been built and know us and even more so we know them? Vulnerability and trust goes both ways, regardless of leadership positions? Having a small group around you praying for you, holding you accountable and reflecting on what is shared in larger contexts that is still vulnerable but perhaps not so many details? I think true Leadership vulnerability can only happen safely in a community where there a few who have your back to weather the storms. Unfortunately, our human nature loves a train wreck. Watching those who post their whole lives on social media and then breakdown when there are those who are negative sometimes just to be cruel. Why are we so surprised that people are cruel?

    • Adam Harris says:

      Thanks for the reply, good insights Jana. Until we live in utopia I imagine we will always hide aspects of ourselves and have multiple degrees of vulnerability in our relationships. Maybe its to idealistic, I just want to keep working toward Christian communities being associated with words like “safe”, “trustworthy”, or “non-judgmental”. Hearing those stories at the luncheon broke my heart and challenged me as a spiritual leader.

Leave a Reply